German Contributions to the Study of Indian regional languages and Sanskrit


The contribution by German and German-speaking missionaries to the study of Indian languages, local customs and religious practices, is unsurpassed, because of their meticulous documentation.

The contribution by German and German-speaking missionaries to the study of Indian languages, customs, cultural peculiarities, and religious practices is unsurpassed, because of their thorough methodology and meticulous documentation, though sometimes looked at with caution, because of its inadvertent religious bias. Here are a few select examples, culled from German Indologists, by Valentina Stache-Rosen, published by the MMB in Delhi in 1980.

Kannada, Urdu:

Heinrich Roth (1620-1668) was probably the first missionary to learn Sanskrit and then to write a grammar in Latin, based on Panini, the famous Sanskrit grammarian of probably the 4th century B.C. Roth came as Jesuit missionary to Goa in 1652, and later went to Agra to find employment at the Moghul court. Roth had also learnt Kannada, Persian and Urdu. He wrote in Latin and therefore he never got the acclaim and wide-spread publicity that he would have deserved, had he written in a more popularly accessible language.


Johannes Ernestus Hanxleden, popularly known as Arnos Padiri (1681-1732) in India (a popular distortion of 'Ernestus' and 'Padri', the title of a priest in Italian and Spanish), came to Kerala in 1700 as Jesuit missionary and soon became an expert of Sanskrit and Malayalam language. Again as Latin was then the common medium of scholarly writings, it took some time for his works to become known.


Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), supposedly the first German Protestant missionary to come to India, was sent to Tranquebar by King Frederick IV of Denmark and Norway. The Danish East India Company had a military colony leased by the Raja of Tanjore. Ziegenbalg studied Tamil and became the first German Dravidologist. His contributions inspired later missionaries to thoroughly study the regional languages and the religious and cultural heritage of the regions, where they were living. For many years, he collected material for a Tamil dictionary and wrote a Tamil grammar in Latin Grammatica Damulica, published in Halle in 1716.

Kannada, Tulu

Ferdinand Kittel (1832-1903), a missionary for the Basel Protestant Mission Society in Basel, lived in Dharward and Mangalore and learnt Kannada, Tulu and Sanskrit. His main contribution to indological studies was his Kannada-English Dictionary, first published in 1894, and the Grammar of the Kannada Language in English, published in 1903.


Hermann Gundert (1814-1893) deserves a special place among the scholars of Indian languages, not only because of his own linguist achievements but also because of his famous grandson Hermann Hesse. Gundert came to India in 1836 as a missionary to work for the Basel mission in Tellicherry in Kerala. He translated the New Testament into Malayalam, and studied the Malayalam language thoroughly, also Kannada, and published a Malayalam-English Dictionary. Because of ill health he had to return to Germany in 1860 and then worked in a publishing house in Calw, but continued to be interested in Indian studies.


For 21 years Gustav Oppert (1836-1908) taught Sanskrit and Comparative Linguistics at the Presidency College in Madras. He also was the Telugu Translator for the Government.


Herman Francke (1870-1930) came to India in 1896 and worked for 14 years as a missionary in the Western Himalayas living in Leh. There he learnt Tibetan and Ladakhi, and published in 1901 his Sketch of a Ladakhi Grammar, the first systematical grammar of Ladakhi language.


Ernst Trumpp (1828-1885) came to India in 1854, learnt Sindhi and many other languages of the Western regions of the subcontinent. His Grammar of the Sindhi Language was published in 1872, a year later his Grammar of the Pushtoo, or language of the Afghans, compared with the Iranian and North Indian idioms. He also translated the most sacred book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth, into English in 1870.


Eduard Roeer (1805-1866) was an apt example of how German expertise was made effective use of by the British East India company. Roeer,who studied philosophy and later on Sanskrit with Bopp in Berlin, entered the services of the East India Company and went to Calcutta in 1839. In 1841 he was appointed librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and then became secretary of the Linguistic Department in 1847. From 1847 onwards he was editor of the series Bibliotheca Indica, a collection of mainly Sanskrit texts concerning Indian subjects published by the Asiatic Society of Bengal. More than 10 Upanishads were published by Roeer in the Bibliotheca Indica between 1849 and 1853. Another German was in the service of education under the British rule in India: Georg Bühler (1837-1898) was nominated Professor of Oriental languages at Elphinstone College in Bombay, and later promoted to the post of Educational Inspector of Gujarat and Officer in Charge of Search for Sanskrit manuscripts in the Bombay Presidency in 1868. Bühler made full use of his time and frequent opportunities for travelling to many places within India. As a keen epigrapher he spent much time in the decipherment of the edicts of Emperor Ashoka. Travelling extensively in Gujarat, one of the main regions with a larger number of Jaina inhabitants, he wrote a book on Die indische Sekte der Jaina, in 1887, and Über das Leben des Jaina Mönchs Hemachandra, in 1889, both published in Vienna.

It was a German Indologist who laid a firm foundation of Rigveda studies in Germany. Grassmann (1809-1877) was a linguistic who brought out the first translation of the Rigveda into German verse and a dictionary of the Vedic language. Hermann Otto von Böthlingk (1815-1904), carried on the tradition. The “Böthlingk-Roth” is synomymous with the St.Petersburg Dictionary of Sanskrit language. This Sanskrit-German Dictionary of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, compiled by Otto von Boethlingk and Rudolph von Roth, appeared between 1852-1875. Theodor Aufrecht (1821-1907) is known for his magnum opus of cataloguing all Sanskrit manuscripts known in Europe and in India in his days, published as Catalogus Catalogorum (1891 and 1903).

The main contribution of German Indology goes undoubtedly to the credit of Max Mueller (1823-1900), foremost scholar of ancient Sanskrit language, especially the Rigveda and other religious texts. His major work is the critical edition of the Rigveda (Oxford, 1847 - 1879). The ‘Sacred Books of the East’, edited by Max Mueller inspired the establishment of numerous study centres, colleges and academies for ancient Indian culture in India, for example in Bombay, Pune, Madras, Benaras, Baroda, Madras, Tanjore, and publication series, such as the Gaekwad Oriental Series, and others.

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